Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) moderator Colleen Burroughs made news last week for stating a simple and obvious opinion — that CBF really needs to have an open conversation about its “organizational value” on sexuality that prohibits “the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual.”
She’s right, of course, though CBF really needs more than a conversation. A tentative stab at talking about the issue is coming up April 19-21 through a “Conference on Sexuality and Covenant” at First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., but leaders have emphasized that it’s for conversation only, not policy recommendations.
The ban on hiring gays needs to be eliminated. Period. Of course, it’s not as if CBF has that many employees, and more have been laid off than hired lately, but it’s the principle of the thing. The statement was approved in 2000 after a series of charges from the Southern Baptist Convention‘s Baptist Press that CBF condoned homosexuality. For several years in the late 1990s, Baptist Press routinely sent reporters to the CBF’s annual gatherings to ferret out any comments, workshops, or even books in the bookstore that were considered to be “gay friendly” or otherwise “liberal.”
CBF, still in its early years, was inordinately sensitive to such charges, in large part because a significant number of supporters remained highly conservative. Organization leaders had to guard against anything that smelled “liberal” for fear of losing churches and funds.
That’s still a concern — but CBF is already bleeding funds, if not churches. The budget has steadily decreased for several years. Appointing new missionaries who don’t have to raise their support seems a thing of the past.
One can posit any number of reasons for the decline, but I think one of them has to be CBF’s inability to decide if it’s fish or fowl — if it wants to be an openly progressive network of Baptist Christians, or to continue as a slightly less conservative version of the SBC, one that affirms equal rights for women but not for gays and lesbians. Without clear direction, it’s hard to work up much passion.
Younger CBFer’s, who are typically much more accepting of persons with a same-gender orientation, have long cried for an open conversation on the subject. That led to a single, very tentatively approached breakout session in 2010, and to the upcoming conference, but it is not an issue that will go away. We have to talk, but we need to do more than talk.
Many older supporters may still oppose anything that appears to condone homosexuality, but my guess is that many of them are changing, too. I suspect I am not the only person who grew up with an anti-gay bias supported by both church and culture. I also grew up as an unabashed racist, but I learned to recognize the evils of racism — and though it took longer, I also came to recognize that marginalizing our gay brothers and sisters is just plain wrong.
Some argue that those who support a “welcoming and affirming” stance have surrendered to the siren song of contemporary culture. They cite a few biblical texts that appear to condemn homosexuality, but overlook the fact that the Bible was written within its own cultural context — one that had no real concept of a same-gender orientation. Biblical writers assumed that everyone was heterosexual and that anyone taking part in a homosexual act was behaving badly. And some of them clearly were: the story about Sodom and Gomorrah is just one example of heterosexual men using same-sex rape as a sinful tool of shame and terror. The concept of an innate same-gender orientation that could lead to committed long-term relationships was just not on the cultural radar.
We were wrong about slavery, though one could defend it with culturally-bound biblical texts, and we’ve been wrong about homosexuality. It’s past time for us to acknowledge that, learn to embrace all of our brothers and sisters, and move on.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.